30 April 2002

I said I'd say something about Jack Caputo's second talk that happened the week before last, a seminar with the philosophy faculty and majors.

The talk basically presented much of the content of "Philosophy and Prophetic Postmodernism: Toward a Catholic Postmodernity" an article Caputo had in the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly (Autumn 2000), which was, in turn, a transcription of a lecture he had given to a consortium of Catholic colleges in Europe. In large part it was a historical overview of the nature and practice of philosophy among Catholic institutions in the United States over the past century or so, arguing that Catholic departments have something to continue learn from Continental philosophy (and postmodernism in particular), that they should not abandon Continental philosophy for the aridity of the Anglo-American analytic tradition, and that these are important considerations if Catholic intellectuals want to retain a prophetic voice in our culture.

First, let's go back a century or so. In the wake of Pope Leo XIII's encylcical "Aeterni Patris" and in the midst of controversies with Marxism and Modernism, American Catholic institutions had circled the wagons and plunged themselves headlong into hard-core (neo-)Thomistic philosophy, rejecting thereby what were (rightly) seen as the deep errors of the Enlightenment. Here at La Salle, for example, well into the late 1950s all students, whatever their major, were required to take 18 credits of Thomistic philosophy and barely cracked open someone so wrong-headed as Descartes.

On the continent, however, things had begun to open up (this is me talking now, not so much Caputo). Philosophers like Joseph Kleutgen, Maurice Blondel, and Erich Przywara had simultaneously returned to a more authentic study of the church Fathers and medievals along with engagement with Continental trends, particularly emerging from Hegel, German idealism, and existential-phenomenology. Theologically these trends came be developed in various directions by the nouvelle theologie (e.g., de Lubac, von Balthasar) on one hand and by transcendental Thomists (e.g., Marechel, Rahner, Lonergan) on the other (for more on this divide, see my essay "Rahner and de Lubac on Nature and Grace"; this way of dividing things, of course, neglects the contributions of the "Lublin Thomism" of the Poles, which has, I think, a closer affinity with that of the nouvelle theologie).

What Caputo suggested is that the study of Thomistic philosophy, in some respects, especially prepared Catholic philosophy in the United States for appropriating the philosophy of the existential-phenomelogists (e.g., Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Marcel) in service to Catholic philosophy. In part this was the result of growing scholarship regarding St. Thomas Aquinas himself, freeing him from the various nominalistic accretions that date back at least to Saurez and were perpetuated by the 19th manuals. Thus scholars like Gilson (and later Chenu) did much to overcome the essentially ahistorical neo-Thomism of the 19th century, situating Aquinas in his 13th century historical context, treating his work as an organic whole, and exploring the deep influence of Christian neo-platonism (Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius) on his thought.

The Aquinas that emerges from this historical reconstruction is one that is significantly closer to phenomenology, who sees the "essence" of a thing in terms of dymanism towards particular ends, who is interested in the whole range of lived human experience, and who defines the human person in terms of an essential openness and orientation towards God. Not only are these themes deeply resonant with those of existential-phenomenology, that philosophical movement itself share many of Catholicism's suspicions with regard to the Enlightenment project and the Cartesian paradigm. Thus it should be no surprise that some of the earliest American translations and discussions of Heidegger, Husserl, and so on, emerged from Catholic institutions of higher learning (e.g. James Collins of St. Louis University or William Richardson of Fordham University and later Boston College).

What worries Caputo is the turn that Catholic philosophy and institutions of higher learning have taken since the 1970's. In particular, he is distressed by the dismissal of postmodernist philosophers such as Foucault and Derrida and an increasing turn towards Anglo-American analytic philosophy as somehow more consistent with the rigors of scholastic methodology.

Caputo argues that there are two tendencies at work within postmodernism: a more Nietzschean or Dionysian theorization of differance as violence and a more Levinasian theorization of differance as alterity. While the former may pose problems for Catholic philosophy, the latter, he suggests, is an indispensible tool, rooted within the biblical narrative, and providing for a prophetic stance towards the world (see, for instance, in the work of Jean-Luc Marion). Even if Derrida's early work may have celebrated a more Dionysian play upon difference, in the past 15 years (and indeed, running all the way back to his early essay "Violence and Metaphysics"), he has emphasized the latter notion. Indeed, some of Derrida's more recent work is explicitly religious in tone (e.g., Circumfessions).

Caputo's talk ended with an analysis of the phenomenology of "the impossible"--the absolute future, the unforeseeable that shatters our horizon of expectation. While modernism was often preoccuppied with the conditions and limits of possibility, what is definitively given and made present, the postmodern is interested in the excess of givenness beyond every possible attempt to contain it, perhaps beyond the possibility of ever being given as "present" in a final way.

The impossible, conceived in this phenomenological manner, is, for Caputo, the condition for the possibility of prayer, for the fiat of the Blessed Virgin who gives herself over to the God of the impossible. The impossible is the sphere of the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love, where faith believes what is incredible, where hope "hopes against hope" (Rom 4:18), and love embraces the utterly unlovable.

From this standpoint, Derrida's "deconstruction of presence" can be seen as continuous with the biblical polemic against idols, in favor of a God who surpasses all we would think to ask for or to imagine. It critiques merely human virtue as constrained by the possible and self-possessed, in favor of faith, hope, and love in which we are possessed by that which is greater than ourselves.

In these ways, then, postmodernism can be a deeply Augustinian retrieval of the distinctively Christian and Catholic, filling out Catholic philosophy's earlier Thomistic appropriation of existential-phenomenology. And in this Catholic philosophy can also once again become a prophetic voice.

26 April 2002

Yippee! Today is the last day of class for the Spring Semester. I'm only giving one exam next week. Of course, I'll have piles of papers to grade soon enough...

23 April 2002

Once again, I find that I've been neglecting my blog. There's no really excuse this time except for general end-of-the-term business.

Last week John Caputo (of Villanova) came to La Salle University to speak again, rounding out our semester series on Postmodernism and Faith. He gave two talks, one a general lecture aimed at the undergraduates and one a small seminar aimed at the philosophy faculty and majors.

The general lecture was called "Cyber Spirits" and covered material that can also be found in his recent book On Religion. He began by reviewing some of the dualisms that emerged out of the Enlightenment and their general effects, particularly with regard to issues of faith in relation to science, society, politics, an so on. By now, the story is a familiar one--the modernist stance towards knowledge is characterized by a detached and disengaged reason that throws off the shackles of superstition and tradition in the name of a new science, unfolding into dualism, instrumentalism, and social atomism. This situation is one that is, in many respects, singularly hostile to faith: faith vs. reason, sacred vs. secular, religion vs. science, church vs. state, and so on.

With the postmodern critique of the Enlightenment, however, they all dualisms have been unmasked as binary oppositions founded, not upon the neutral, objective demands of knowledge, but upon the far more unstable sands of politics, power, and arbitrary privilege. Thus postmodernism points beyond to a future in which such dualism no longer thrive. At this point Caputo asked us to consider the world envisioned by the Star Wars films--a set of highly technological and scientific cultures set on the stage of inter-galactic politics. And yet, it is also a world suffused with the demands of faith: the everpresent Force, religious hierarchies, societies of Jedi knights, and so on, all seamlessly intertwined with science, politics, and intellect.

Caputo's point was not to recommend the religion of Star Wars per se, which by all accounts is rather more Eastern in flavor than it is Christian. Rather, he finds the vision projected by Star Wars to hold out a tantalizing possibility for people of faith: that the world that lies beyond the modern, though fraught with its own dangers and snares, may be one that is, nonetheless, more friendly towards, and indeed more cognizant of its need for religion and people and faith.

I'll say something about Caputo's seminar talk in a subsequent blog entry.

11 April 2002

Mark Horne asks, "What were Hays's conclusions about Leviticus? What are yours? Enquiring minds want to know."

Hays says that "Paul rejects the Law not because of an empirical observation that no one can do what it requires, but because its claim to give life, explicitly articulated in Lev 18:5, is incompatible with the gospel story, which says that Christ had to die in order to give life to us" (page 179).

Now, I think Hays is right that Paul's position with regard to the Law does not arise out of our observed inability to keep the Law. That contradicts Paul's own testimony in Philippians 3:6, doesn't fit with the fact the Law itself as an overall way of life makes provision for transgression, and seems implausible in light of what I find to be the fairly persuasive arguments of Stendhal and others.

I also agree with Hays's corollary suggestion that Paul's implication--that there is no Law that could possibly give life (3:21)--is a purely general one. That is to say, it is not so much a point about the impossibility of Law-keeping, but is making the claim that even if one were to keep the Law perfectly, the Law still wouldn't be able to give (resurrected, vindicated) life. After all, in some sense Jesus did keep the Law perfectly and still fell under its curse. The focus is less one of "Law-keeping" vs. "faith" in the abstract as it is two successive phases of covenant history. Paul can speak of the work of Christ as "when faith came" as an eschatological fulfillment that lies beyond the Law (Galatains 3:25).

But I don't like Hays's handling of Paul's quotation of Leviticus 18:5 in Galatians 3:12 (and its parallel in Romans 10:5). It seems implausible to me that Paul is saying that [1] the Law claimed to be able to give life in the sense that the promise does by faith through the death of the Messiah and [2] that the Law was mistaken in this claim about itself.

Paul holds the Law in too high regard elsewhere to say [2], indeed, suggesting that the Law was a necessary step in the unfolding of the divine plan and was, in its proper place within redemptive history, holy, righteous, and good. Moreover, one apsect of Paul's argument is that the Law itself teaches that the promise precedes the Law, which seems to contradict [1].

So, what's going on in Galatians 3? I'm not entirely sure, to be honest. It is one of the most notoriously difficult bits of Paul's writings.

The picture as I see it goes something like this. The whole function of the Law all along was to point beyond itself to faith, to an eschatological fulfillment that had been promised ahead of time to Abraham who himself, as the man of faith, typologically points forward to the faithfulness of the Messiah (Galatians 3:6, 16-18).

The Galatians had not received the Spirit (correlative to justification and life) by the works of the Law--the God-ordained system of Torah, which, among other things, distinguished between Jew and Gentile--but by the "hearing of faith," that is, the message about the faithfulness of the Messiah, which they then believed (Galatians 3:2-8). When that "faith came" (the faithfulness of the promised seed, Jesus Christ) the Law no longer could play the role it once did in forming Israel's identity, thus allowing the Gentiles to enjoy the Spirit, justification, and life together with the Jews, as those who believe in the Messiah (Galatians 3:14, 22-29).

Indeed, Paul indicates that those who are under the Law are under a curse (Galatians 3:10), quoting Deuteronomy 27:26 where Israel swore allegiance to the Law. Since the Law was laid upon Israel through a self-maledictory oath and since the Law points beyond itself to faith (the faithfulness of the Messiah and those who put their faith in him), the Law can only ultimately curse those who are bound under it as it moves them beyond itself to faith (in the case of the suffering remnant) or as they apostatize from it (in the case of unfaithful Israel, and either way, curse is inevitable). This "curse of the Law" given to Israel had, from the beginning, been central to God's plan for dealing with sin (as Paul makes clear in Romans).

As a matter of eschatology, the Seed to whom the promise is made lives (and is justified) by faith, moving that Seed beyond the Law but also, thereby, bringing him under the curse of the Law as one who no longer continues in the Law. But, "The Righteous One [i.e., the Messiah, the promised Seed] will live by faith" (Galatians 3:11, quoting Habakkuk 2:4). And living by faith, he redeems us from the curse of the Law since his life of faith leads to crucifixion upon a tree, manifesting the curse that the Law inevitably brings (Galatians 3:13).

The Law, however, Paul says, is not of faith (Galatians 3:12). But here he means the Law taken on its own terms, in itself, apart from its eschatological goal: the Messiah who is the end of the Law (Romans 10:4; Galatians 3:19, 22, 24). Thus, he quotes from Leviticus 18:5, "The one who does these things shall live in these things." Paul doubles up the phrase "these things" in the quotation to show the Law's expression of its own self-limitations. The point here is not "Law-keeping" in some abstract way, but the refusal to move from Law, taken in itself, to the Law's eschatological goal of faith (e.g., by still requiring circumcision once faith has come).

Contrary to Hays, the Law is not rejected here because it claims to give the life that only comes through faith. Rather, it is rejected because the life the Law offers is not the eschatological life that comes through faith, but only the life that is to be found "in these things," within the sphere of the Law itself. Once faith comes, that sub-eschatological life that comes through the Law can no longer function among God's people. It's the wrong kind of life. Now we have life in the Messiah, in our corporate identity with the promised Seed, as Abraham's children.

That, at least, is my current thinking on the matter, though this is still very much a work in progress.

09 April 2002

In recent days there's been a debate within the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) regarding the nature of subscription to our subordinate Standards, the Westminster Confession of Faith and the two Catechisms. Between the extremes of broad (or loose) susbscription and strict subscription, there is "good faith" subscription, a position that has been the dominant one in historic Presbyterianism.

"Good faith" subscription requires a candidate for office to sincerely receive and adopt the Confessions and Catechisms of the denomination, but only as fallible documents that, in the fundamentals of the system they present, represent the system of doctrine taught in holy Scripture. Moreover, when a candidate takes exception to any particular statement or doctrine of the Standards, it is up to the Presbytery examining that candidate to determine whether that exception is out of accord with a "fundamental" of the system of doctrine of the Standards in that it is hostile to the system or strikes at the vitals of religion.

Among other developments in the debate about subscription is an Amendment to the Book of Church Order that is being proposed in order to specify good faith subscription as the position of the denomination. A number of Presbyteries have backed this Amendment by endorsing an Overture to the General Assembly of the denomination to Amend the Book of Church Order.

And that's where I come in.

Apparently one of the Presbyteries that passed an Overture to this effect was the Ohio Valley Presbytery. This, in turn, led to one of the (presumably strict subscriptionist) congregational Sessions within that Presbytery to file a 10-point complaint against the Presbytery (which I will spare you reading here; it is very poorly argued and worded at any rate). Somehow, however, I came to be named in the first point of the complaint, which cites my article on the Westminster Confession and baptismal regeneration.

I am cited in order to support the contention that good faith subscription "has the effect of supplanting the Westminster
Standards...and replacing the historically accepted system of doctrine with an arbitrary determination by the presbytery as to what constitutes the system of doctrine." Of course, the irony here is that my argument with regard to the Westminster Confession is that if it is strictly construed with regard to its original intent and how it was historically understood at the time of its composition, it must be taken to allow for at least several versions of baptismal regeneration and that such a historically established position is not an "exception" to the standards at all, let alone an "arbitrary determination."

Now, I think that a well-established position is that the denominational body that adopts a confessional standard has the authority to determine, within reasonable bounds, what that standard means in their confession of it (and thus to eliminate positions that were within the bounds of its original intent, or to include ones that were outside of that intent). But that is not exactly what strict subscriptionists want. In any case, I've appended a note to my article in order to try and clarify these issues for any who come to the article with the subscription debate in mind.

I just finished reading Richard Hays's The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1 - 4:11 (2nd Edition; Eerdmans, 2002). The new edition includes a very helpful introduction and a couple of appendices.

I don't agree with all of Hays's exegetical conclusions (e.g., with regard to Paul's citation of Leviticus in Galatians 3), but his overall approach is interesting and helpful. His main argument is that Galatians (and many other of Paul's letters) are not best understood simply by attempting to trace the logic of his arguments taken on their own. Rather, Paul's mode of argumentation presupposes a basic underlying narrative in which God, Israel, Christ, the law, believers, and so on, each have an important role to play and this narrative formed the core of Paul's earlier preaching to the Galatians about Christ.

This narrative substructure comes fairly clearly to the surface of the text in a compressed form at a couple of points (e.g., Galatians 3:13-14; 4:4-5), but for the most part is simply presupposed. Thus, much of the logic of Paul's argument is not so much a rigorous formal logic found in what he explicitly says, but a narrative logic located in the story he assumes his audience to already know and share. Hays's way of uncovering the narrative substructure of the text provides a powerful tool for exegesis of particular passages, especially ones that are open to a variety of exegetical options (e.g., the much contested "pistis Christou" -- the "faith of Christ").

Since Hays's book is also his doctoral dissertation, it sometimes reads like one, going into greater detail and interaction with various sources than is really helpful for the average reader. Nonetheless, it is a very good book which, along with his Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, has done much good in getting biblical scholars to step back and get the big picture of Paul's theology, the story of Jesus he wants to tell, and his way of handling the Old Testament.

I had pretty much given up blogging for Lent, but then Easter rolled around and I found that the desire to blog had not yet returned with the force it once had. So, I've been terribly delinquent about it.

But, now since my wife has put me on the spot, I suppose I shall have to try to get back in the habit again.

The "news" to which she refers is that La Salle University (the school where I primarily teach already) has offered me a full-time position. It's not tenure-track, but it is full-time with commensurate pay and benefits. Up until now, I was merely an "adjunct" professor who was paid per course taught and without benefits (or my own office).

Given that the youngest Garver is on his or her way this August, the assistant professor position, starting in August, couldn't come at a better time. For a being who exists outside of time, God really has a good sense of timing.